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UWS Weighs City Plan to Protect Mom and Pop Stores

By Leslie Albrecht | January 20, 2012 9:42am
Upper West Siders have become increasingly concerned about the influx of chain stores such as Duane Reade.
Upper West Siders have become increasingly concerned about the influx of chain stores such as Duane Reade.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

UPPER WEST SIDE — As co-owner of Westsider Rare & Used Books, Bryan Gonzalez can answer just about any question on unusual tomes.

He also regularly fields queries about the future of his musty shop, which is one of the neighborhood's few remaining independent bookstores.

And as more mom and pop businesses have shuttered on the Upper West Side, locals assume it's just a matter of time before Westsider, wedged into a tiny space next to a Staples and a Starbucks on Broadway and West 81st Street, joins them on the dust heap.

Gonzalez tells his clients, however, not to worry.

"My landlord lives in the neighborhood, and he wants us here to a certain extent," Gonzalez said.

Now some of those anxious Westsider customers could rest a little easier.

In response to years of hand-wringing about disappearing small businesses, the city Planning Department has unveiled a set of zoning proposals that, if approved by the City Council, would preserve the Upper West Side's "existing vibrant retail character," planners say.

The proposed rules, first reported by DNAinfo in June, would limit the amount of streetfront space most new businesses could use along Amsterdam and Columbus avenues to 40 feet. On Broadway, Columbus and Amsterdam, banks would be limited to 25 feet wide of streetfront.

To craft the proposed rules, city planners studied the Upper West Side's streetscape for three years. They determined that a typical block on Columbus or Amsterdam Avenue has seven small businesses providing a mix of goods and services.

The proposal doesn't dictate what type of businesses can move into the neighborhood. But planners say it will "encourage diverse retail" by preventing one large store, typically a chain, from gobbling up several smaller storefronts.

Bruce Stark, co-owner of Beacon Paint & Hardware on Amsterdam Avenue between West 77th and 78th streets, said the zoning proposal was equally good for the neighborhood and businesses like his, which probably wouldn't survive if a national chain moved in.

"How many Duane Reades do we need?" Stark said. "How many banks do we need? As a resident of the neighborhood, I'd rather see, like everyone else, smaller stores that have things people need."

Wednesday night marked the start of the required public review of the proposal, and a standing-room-only crowd of more than 150 people crammed into the Goddard Riverside Community Center. Most voiced support for the proposal, which some said was long overdue.

Monica McKane-Sanchez, an Upper East Sider, said the proposal could help people like her homebound mother-in-law. A native of Puerto Rico, she now lives in Manhattan Valley and relies on a small Latino grocery store for most of her food.

"She needs things from the dollar store, not from Duane Reade," McKane-Sanchez said.

The Real Estate Board of New York and the New York Bankers Association both oppose the plan.

"We believe that the proposed use controls will not achieve their intended goals and in fact may create strong disincentives for businesses to continue to invest in and serve this neighborhood," wrote NYBA president Michael P. Smith in a letter to Planning Commission chair Amanda Burden.

Barbara Adler, the president of the Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District, also spoke out against the proposal. While it could help preserve the lively streetscape of Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway, it could hamper the ability of Columbus Avenue stores to expand or change over time, Adler said.

"[In] the case of Columbus Avenue, this proposal is not only a solution looking for a problem, but ... it has a profound threat of unanticipated consequences," said Adler, reading from a letter from her board.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, long a supporter of mom and pop stores, showed up to applaud the city's plan.

"I'm here because I have 65 banks in my district," Brewer said, prompting boos from the audience.

Some longtime residents at the hearing reminisced about bygone days on the Upper West Side, when Zabar's was a "tiny storefront" and a five-cent streetcar ran through the neighborhood.

But the question of whether the proposal could truly preserve the neighborhood's dwindling quaintness loomed large. Some said the real obstacles for small businesses are skyrocketing rents and landlords who refuse to renew leases so they can move in higher paying tenants.

"The problem really in a nutshell with the loss of mom and pop stores is the marketplace," said Community Board 7 member Jay Adolf. "And this proposal doesn't address that."

Debra Kravet, who owns Apthorp Cleaners on Amsterdam Avenue between West 78th and 79th streets, called the proposal "a day late and a dollar short," because a large candy store is moving into spaces once occupied by several small businesses on her block.

Kravet said small businesses like hers need protection from landlords. She said her business was forced to leave the Apthorp apartment building after 26 years when her landlord wouldn't offer her a new lease.

"Our lease ended and they said goodbye," Kravet said. "If there were some guidelines that landlords had to follow, it would make it a lot easier. You spend 26 years building up a business and all of the sudden you're at the fate of the landlord."

Other neighborhood small business owners also expressed skepticism about the zoning proposal.

David Endo, who owns the tiny Vitamin Peddler vitamin store on Amsterdam Avenue between West 77th and 78th streets, said rent was his biggest worry, and he wasn't sure the city could do anything about that. As for other solutions the city could offer, Endo said it wasn't his top priority.

"I don't think about it," Endo said. "Mostly I just concern myself with paying the bills."